Reflecting on two years

On April 8 Big Jones turned two. I’m one who prefers looking forward over looking back, but it’s hard not to recognize there’s value – and fun – in reviewing accomplishments and taking stock from time to time. Unlike last year, it was hard to pay too much notice to this anniversary because the restaurant’s been busy, I’ve been busy, and it seemed there were better things to do.

Then suddenly, I realized what a great year it was! Mark, our staff, and I would like to extend the warmest thanks to everyone who has been with us in any part during the last year, starting with all of you who have dined with us! Thanks also to the folks who sell us vegetables, seafood, milk, pork, dry goods, and all manner of supplies. All of you make our work work.

Shortly after our first anniversary, Chicago Magazine named us on their list of best new restaurants and it seemed as if we were on our way to shaking off the winter doldrums and the fallout from the recession of our lives. It was a defining moment for us, because Chicago Magazine is a fantastic magazine with a cracker jack team of writers, reviewers, and editors. And, in spite of the media’s repeated declarations that print media is dead, Chicago Magazine remains hugely influential and as vibrant a publication as ever.

We spent a couple of very busy, hectic months catching up with increasing demand after that write up, and found ourselves, along with every other farm to table restaurant, in the strangest growing season in memory. Cold temperatures and excessive localized rains put some of our favorite growers, including Kinnikinnick and Genesis Growers, way behind the 8-ball to begin the season. Simple items like lettuce and cabbage seemed to be much later than usual. It was a cool summer. Tomato season was late, and while the tomatoes were good, we hoped for an earlier catch.

One of the things that became clear as our business increased is that I needed a sous chef that could help me maintain essential standards in the kitchen and at the same time help me advance our cuisine. A long, protracted search landed someone who so far seems like just the right man for the job. Corey’s first anniversary at Big Jones will be in June. A lot of our reflections on the last year have to do with contributions he has made, being my second set of eyeballs on the staff, helping to watch technique, teach, and generally raise standards. He also brought us something I really wanted: experience with progressive American cuisine at Alinea that would elevate our plate compositions. I also identified with Corey’s passion for Asian cooking, and his work with Bill Kim at Le Lan was a selling point. He’s been a great Sous Chef, and we hope to work with him for a long time. It will be up to us to challenge his formidable talents.

I can’t say enough about the fun we had and our sense of pride participating in our second Green City Market Chef’s Barbeque. The lineup of chefs was fantastic, and we were lucky enough to try delicious food from most of the other restaurants there, drink some beer, and help raise money for one of the country’s greatest green markets. A couple of months later, we found ourselves at the Green City Market Harvest Festival, a truly humbling experience where we served a Debris Gumbo made entirely of local ingredients next to chefs Rick Bayless, Sarah Stegner, George Bumbaris, Paul Virant, Gail Gand, Carrie Nahabedian, and a handful of others.

Days later, I spent a few days at the Chef’s Collaborative Summit networking with chefs and suppliers while learning more about sustainability issues and food. Between this event and the Green City Market Harvest Festival, it was probably the most inspiring week of the year.

The very next week, we closed for three days to apply some lessons, do a light renovation and redecorate a bit, and we emerged after three days of hard work a restaurant that more closely matched people’s expectations. We closed off the old open windows to the kitchen and moved the wait station, a move that opened the dining room and improved the flow of the room. New damask wallpaper and paint make a bright, cheery room during the day, and something a little sexier at night than the old colors.

The results were immediate, with our year-over-year sales being up 10% in September (in spite of three closed days) 15% in October and November, 40% in December, 44% in January, 35% in February, and 40% in March. Even at the wildly successful Hi Ricky I have never seen this happen. It’s hard to know what to say, it’s humbling, it’s exhilarating and sometimes exhausting. But it’s fun. It’s been hard to keep up sometimes, and we wish to thank anyone who has experienced a blip in their service during this time for your understanding and patience. We are always working on it, we’ve been caught unprepared here and there, but overall it seems we’re getting the job done!

Last Fall, we joined the Shedd Aquarium’s Right Bite program as a partner to promote ocean conservation and sustainable seafood. This has been part of a long process we engaged even before we opened Big Jones, to continually educate ourselves about sustainability issues and move toward total sustainability regarding every aspect of our operations. We still have a way to go, but it’s a commitment, a process, and a direction we have taken that we have to keep. We are pleased to say we are serving exclusively Louisiana crawfish, farm-raised Mississippi catfish, sustainably farmed white shrimp from Belize, wild-caught American crab, and all sustainable fin fish, and that we are nearly 100% sustainable in our seafood program, closing in on that 100th percent.

in November, the Chicago Tribune published a feature article on fried chicken that declared us a “fry master” something our customers have known for a long time. Thanks to Kevin Pang for a great, well-written piece on one of our great love affairs: fried chicken!

We started up with a new dairy supplier, Kilgus Farmstead, a new egg supplier, Temple Farms Organics, found organic popcorn rice from Arkansas to fill out our pantry, and expanded our relationship with Anson Mills. The best story here was meeting Tracey Vowell and Kathe Roybal of Three Sisters Garden down by Kankakee, who have been supplying us with local white corn and white cornmeal (essential to the coastal Southern pantry, as opposed to yellow corn meal) and pecans and pea shoots, and most recently oatmeal, from their small sustainable practices farm. We’ve learned to make hominy with their corn, and gotten good at it, something you can enjoy on our weekend brunches!

On January 7, Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune rated Big Jones Three Stars, another major event for us that left us humbled, almost shocked. It’s not that we didn’t think we’re good. We’ve long felt like we are a very good restaurant and getting better all the time. To have someone like Phil Vettel whose column we’ve read since moving to Chicago fifteen years ago, tell the public you’re very good is another matter. It felt great, it still feels great, and gives us all the reason to work harder and smarter. We feel like it’s something we have to earn every day. Thanks again to Phil Vettel for making the trip up to Andersonville to check us out, and all of his years of great writing!

There haven’t been major events since the Chicago Tribune review, it’s been winter until very recently, but our business continues to blossom almost on a daily basis, something we are thankful for in these very difficult times. Thanks again to everyone who has joined us for a meal, dessert, or drinks, written us to sing our praises or gripe at us, or grown amazing food for us to serve our guests. Two years behind, many years ahead!